By Peg Moore

Samuel Gaillard Stoney once wrote, “If you take away the rice spoon from the Charleston dinner table, the meal that follows is not really a meal.”

Rice was traditionally served daily, sometimes at every meal. For 200 years Carolina Gold rice supported the local economy, which was the wealthiest of the colonial era. Rice created the wealth that built our historic district. Those buildings continue to attract heritage visitors who also seek a taste of place — culinary tourism is surging. “To know Charleston is to know rice and rice culture,” points out author John Martin Taylor in Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking.

The Renaissance of Carolina Gold Rice

To really know rice is to know Carolina Gold — this is the rice that was so treasured by royalty and elite chefs all over the world. When George Washington visited Charleston in 1791, he was impressed by the rice culture here. Just before the War Between the States, some 11 million pounds a year were being produced.

Rice growing began to disappear after the War. During most of the 20th century, the only rice available was bland, stripped of nutrition and flavor by processing.

It was not until 1988 that it was possible to taste Carolina Gold again. It was grown by Dr. Richard Schulze of Turnbridge Plantation in Georgia. The New York Times headlined the event. However, the production was small and the price high — $10 a pound.

During the 1990s local chefs such as Mike Lata, Robert Stehling and Frank Lee put Charleston on the culinary map by their passion for using ingredients from local farmers, revving up ancient recipes with the best ingredients. Stone-ground grits were available from a century-old mill in Tennessee, but rice was missing.

It was the visionary Glenn Roberts who rose to the challenge of reviving our own heirloom gains.

Glenn Roberts and Anson Mills

Glenn Roberts grew up eating rice daily and listening to his mother express horror over supermarket rice. She would also reminisce about the rice of her own childhood in Aiken. Glenn was managing Anson restaurant during the 1990s and was often asked to create period dinners. He was unable to find the right ingredients.

Glenn’s passion for heirloom ingredients led him to move to Columbia in 1998 and set about milling proper grains himself. He began to have them grown organically. Anson Mills now produces a variety of ancient grains and flours as well as Charleston’s iconic rice. Thus, Carolina Gold is back in the kitchens of 4,500 restaurants in America, Asia and Europe and the number constantly increases.

Among them is Rose’s Luxury in Washington D.C. Owner Aaron Silver takes no reservations and there may be several hours to wait. The restaurant has been described as “one of the buzziest in the city.” Yes, the Obamas have been in — the restaurant is used to having Secret Service. Blackberry Farm, the famous luxury resort in Tennessee and The Dabney in D.C. also feature Carolina Gold.

Chef Rene Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark and Dan Barber of Blue Hill in New York are excited about the milling process at Anson Mills — it aims to emulate the original hand-pounding to maintain nutrients and flavor. Middleton Place has an educational program about the hand-pounding.

Charleston Grill

A reporter from the BBC recently visited Charleston to learn why there is so much excitement about our rice. He began his research at Charleston Grill. Chef Michelle Weaver told him about Carolina Gold — “It’s the most diverse rice I’ve ever worked with. It can work as sticky rice, in porridge, in risotto, whatever you need.”

Carolina Gold turns up in the “Cosmopolitan” section of Michelle’s menu, which stars exotic dishes inspired by other countries. The appetizer of smoked mackerel unagi is so delicious you might want to have several of these instead of a main course.

In Japan, unagi refers to a popular dish of sliced eel served on a bed of rice. Michelle uses smoked mackerel and serves it with pineapple and sakura sauce (a Japanese white sauce) and sticky crispy rice.

FIG

The BBC reporter also check out FIG, opened by Mike Lata in 2003. It was Glenn who found Mike Lata in 1998 in an Atlanta restaurant and persuaded him to move to Charleston and oversee the kitchen of Anson. Mike shares Glenn’s passion for excellence and heirloom products. He mentored many up-and-coming chefs in Charleston before moving on to open FIG and the Ordinary.

Mike is high in his praise of Glenn. When asked which food purveyor inspires him the most, his answer is Glenn — “His genius only comes around once in a lifetime.”

There is often a French fish stew at FIG featuring shrimp, mussels and Carolina Gold rice. Another delicious option is likely to be suckling pig and Carolina Gold rice bowl with shishito peppers.

Joanne and John Milkereit especially enjoy FIG’s seafood dishes. “I first tasted triggerfish here,” she says, remembering that it came with a velvety sauce. Before Mike began to use triggerfish, it was considered a trash fish. Mike cares about sustainability and likes to avoid over-fished varieties. Wreckfish is another once unpopular fish that Mike has transformed into haute cuisine in his kitchen.  

Jason Stanhope is now the executive chef and received the Best Chef Southeast award from the James Beard Foundation in 2014. Mike received the same award in 2009.

The BBC ecstatically reported that Charleston’s rice is a “homegrown rock star.” Other savvy chefs in Charleston feature Carolina Gold and authenticity, too — more about them next month. Bon appétit!

 

Peg Moore may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

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